PRINT March 2021

On Site

It’s a Small World (After All)

Ulrike Müller, The Conference of the Animals (A Mural), 2020, latex paint. Installation view, Queens Museum, New York. Photo: Hai Zhang.

I GREW UP IN QUEENS about twenty minutes from Flushing Meadows Park, the site of the 1964 New York World’s Fair and the home of the Queens Museum, where “The Conference of the Animals” opened last September—an exhibition of a forty-five-foot wall mural by artist Ulrike Müller and of children’s drawings selected by independent curator Amy Zion. The Unisphere, an enormous steel globe visible through the glass doors and windows of the museum’s lobby, was an abiding feature of my childhood landscape, glimpsed through the windows of cars and buses and visited regularly. Conceived as an ornament of the exposition, the sphere, according to the New York City Parks Department,

features representations of the continents and major mountain ranges in relief, and is encircled by three giant orbital rings that represent the tracks of early satellites. The capital cities of the world were marked by lights. The Unisphere celebrated both the dawn of the space age and the fair’s broader theme of “Peace Through Understanding.” It has since become a beloved symbol of Queens.

I was born in 1964. My childhood memories of the Unisphere conjure a forlorn, litter-strewn area, already a relic of a vanished optimism that no longer fit the tough working-class neighborhood where I was raised. Walking around it as a kid, I felt like the world had abandoned this place. The grounds, the park, the museum are tended more carefully these days.

Deeper and more complex interpenetrating histories can be unearthed beneath the thin layers of my 1970s experiences, affected by the moods of my family members, who worked many jobs and many shifts. The building that now houses the Queens Museum was constructed as a pavilion for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, whose exhibits forecasted a utopian “World of Tomorrow” advanced by industry, science, and technology. Walter Benjamin keenly observed that universal exhibitions were not what they claimed to be—displays where attendees could marvel at human progress and innovation from all over the world. Rather, he saw them, pessimistically, as theaters of industrial competition. Their double spectacle of material abundance and increasingly solidified national identity presaged the genocidal program of the Third Reich as well as the international corporate consolidation and the post-Fordist modes of assembly still dominant in today’s networked capitalism. The alternative left-wing propositions of borderless socialism or communism, as imagined by the Industrial Workers of the World or the International Workingmen’s Association, were never realized in the twentieth century, which instead bore witness to efforts at international cooperation like the formation of the United Nations, whose General Assembly was housed in the Queens Museum building from 1946 to 1950.

It’s tantalizing to imagine that any beings—vegetable, mineral, animal—anybody other than adult humans could organize a conference and save us from ourselves.

This well-documented history of hope and despair informs Müller and Zion’s exhibition, whose title refers to German writer Erich Kästner’s children’s book Die Konferenz der Tiere (The Animals’ Conference, 1949). The museum’s website describes the story as a “political satire about a group of animals who, frustrated by the inefficacy of human international conferences, convene to save the planet.” Kästner’s pacifist allegory was an important inspiration for Müller’s composition, which flows from the museum’s lobby into the galleries holding Zion’s exhibition of drawings by young people. The mural is an extraordinary accomplishment for Müller, who has successfully adapted her distinctive visual vernacular to a scale unprecedented in her oeuvre. As in other Müller exhibitions, the walls of the host institution serve both as painted surfaces and as supports for framed works. In this case, three prints by the artist and several children’s drawings chosen by Zion are hung at approximately eye level on the mural wall. The painting itself is a gigantic composition of shapes, lines, and colors, both flat and textured, which may or may not depict animals or abstract configurations. The lines create forms that are not contained by the boundaries of color, suggesting numerous possibilities for the imagination. For example, a central pinkish-and-gray figure resembles the famous “duck-rabbit” illusion used by William James, Joseph Jastrow, and other psychologists around the turn of the century to demonstrate the mind’s incapacity to simultaneously comprehend two images in one visual emblem. If one perceivesthe “face” of the shape as pointing to the viewer’s right, then the two beaklike forms suggest a bird’s bill. Look away and back again, now envisioning the pink profile pointing leftward, and the beak becomes a pair of ears; the silhouette seems to belong to a rabbit or a mouse. Two simple, strategically placed white circles can be seen as eyes, or not.

The entire composition can be “read” left to right or right to left, from the top down or vice versa. The form farthest to the left appears to be feline, canine, or rodentlike when viewed as an upright standing figure; but try following the lines of the shape going downward, toward the ground—you may see a whale’s tail submerging. All the planes are flat: The painting is always a two-dimensional surface, without illusionistic depth. There are no shadows per se, but there is an adroitly designed palette of Benjamin Moore paints, with some colors applied flat and others using decorative sponging techniques. Despite the rectangular border that appears on the right side of the mural’s base—a familiar trope in Müller’s smaller, asymmetrical enamel works—the only true figure-ground relationship oscillates between the surface of the wall and the lobby floor on which the viewer stands.

Hanna Gärtner, Bärenbrunnen (Bear Fountain), 1928, stone. Installation view, Vienna, 1996. Photo: Philip Ward-Jackson.

Müller’s figures refer to a particular history of public sculpture in Vienna, where she previously lived, and where the animal statues were used to decorate municipal-housing complexes. A key reference is Hanna Gärtner’s Bärenbrunnen (Bear Fountain), 1928, located in the Matteottihof housing project in the fifth district of the Austrian capital. A relic of “Red Vienna,” as the city was known during the time the Social Democrats enjoyed a governing majority, between 1918 and 1934, the fountain features a dodecagonal basin, each side showing a relief of one of the zodiac’s twelve signs. It is crowned by a “big bear,” which balances a “small bear” on its back. Among the postwar projects important to Müller are Mario Petrucci’s seven bronze Ponys (Ponies), 1952–57, which adorn the entrance and courtyard of the Einstein-Hof apartments in the city’s sixth district. These civic ornaments embody utopian ideals of human relations to nature, a vision of the world in which people are neither distant from a thriving environment that coexists with planned industrialism nor alienated from their dwellings or their jobs. As we all know, that world never came into existence anywhere on Earth. So Müller’s mural can now be viewed as a paean, perhaps even a memorial, to socialist utopias, hopes for global cooperation, and a long-defeated humanist anthropocentrism.

Some of us are glad to bid humanism goodbye (I am) as we face our increasingly precarious existence on a dying planet and nauseating disillusionment with the ideal of the human as an enlightened steward of Earth. Genocide perpetrated by humans against humans exists on a suicidal continuum with capitalism’s devastation of the shared ecosystems that support the lives of other species—all species.

While Müller’s shape-shifting figures confound distinctions among animals and perhaps even other life-forms, Zion’s exhibition of children’s drawings unsettles clichéd notions of childhood innocence. Some depict warfare and mass graves—ravages that youths around the world suffer and witness; others record the refugee displacements that millions of kids endure. There are pictures that show street scenes, cityscapes, and domestic life, and there are astonishing abstractions. Zion’s exhibition follows on the work of leading curator Lynne Cooke, whose phenomenal “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” originated at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in 2018. Cooke’s show recognized the long-repressed influence of artists who were and are excluded from institutional recognition and support because of racism, sexism, ableism, classism, or geography. For these reasons and many more, promising artists are denied access to training or education. Cooke’s notion of the “outlier” importantly refigures the category of the “outsider” as a shaping condition of American modernism. It also recalls one of queer theory’s foundational insights: that the LGBTQ+ aggregate and those of us excluded for our nonconformity define the center and its institutional (hetero) norms. (See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s foundational 1990 book, Epistemology of the Closet.) Children’s drawings, Zion shows us, are as sophisticated as those made by adults. Moreover, their departure from linear perspective and nonacademic treatment of color and scale were transformative for twentieth-century art.

Müller’s mural provides a strong backdrop for Zion’s selected drawings while also making its own persuasive argument for the continuation of a pluralistically conceived modernism and its various attempts to upend established hierarchies. Consider her body of work prior to the mural, which features animal forms, stiletto heels, and other suggestive shapes dispersed among, or rendered as, almost unrecognizable blocks of form. These paintings undo assumptions about gender conformity and destroy false distinctions between animals and humans, figuration and abstraction, through deft, inventive, and unique artistry.

Together, Müller and Zion have collaborated on a set of propositions that we viewers know but continue to forget: Children aren’t necessarily cute, nor is everything they do cute. They, we, are animals: living organisms feeding on organic matter. We congregate at the museum, visitors young and old, in all our animality. Socially distanced groups, couples, and individuals—humans awkwardly walk around the galleries in protective cloth masks, reminded that we’re all breathing the same contaminated air. As it becomes ever clearer that we are, per Herbert Marcuse, rationally organized toward irrational ends, it’s tantalizing to imagine that any beings—vegetable, mineral, animal—anybody other than adult humans could organize a conference and save us from ourselves. Yet the hard work we face requires an honest and humbling reevaluation of what we are and of our limits.

Gregg Bordowitz is an artist, writer, and teacher who spends time in Chicago and New York.